Herman Maril had two worlds, and each provided him what something the other lacked.

The artist, who was born in Baltimore in 1908 and died here in 1986, spent his life painting some of the grittier aspects of the city. Invariably, his astute and affectionate eye discovered the aesthetic appeal of even the homeliest objects. But for nearly every summer of Maril's adult life, he took his family to the beach in Provincetown, Mass., filling canvases with the ever-changing interplay of water and light.

Both worlds are on display in Herman Maril: An American Modernist, a 27-painting exhibit that opened last week at the Walters Art Museum and that celebrates the centennial of the artist's birth.

"He was one of the few Baltimore-born artists of his generation to earn a national reputation," says the exhibit's curator, William R. Johnston. "He was very much part of the second generation of modernist artists in this country who worked to develop an American style."

Maril's paintings are owned by about 75 museums, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Renwick Gallery and the Phillips Collection in Washington; the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Baltimore Museum of Art.

The Walters exhibit contains the highlights of an 88-painting show last fall in the Provincetown Art Association & Museum curated by Christine M. McCarthy. In an article selecting the show as one of the Top 10 exhibits in New England in 2008, Boston Globe correspondent Cate McQuaid wrote that Maril "delved beautifully into space, tone, and surface."

The artist achieved his effects through the judicious use of an "extremely limited" palette of just six or seven colors, Johnston says.

"A contemplative artist, balancing intellect with intuition, he created on canvas what he saw, eliminating all but the barest essentials," Johnston writes in the wall text accompanying the Walters exhibit. "In many of his mature works, his compositions on first glance seem to have been reduced to juxtaposed fields of color."

Though Maril's interest in abstraction is apparent to even casual viewers, the objects he's portraying are readily recognizable.

For instance, a 1970 painting titled Dialogue at Five depicts an outdoor cafe in Provincetown. The facial features of the people in the canvas are obscured and their limbs are elongated, but the canvas, nonetheless, conveys an almost palpable mood of peace and well-being. "Even though we can't see their faces, we can imagine what the people he painted are talking about," Johnston says.

An exhibit showcasing a contemporary painter with a taste for the conceptual might be seen as an unusual choice for the Walters, which is known for its collection of medieval art. But executive director Gary Vikan says the museum and artist had a lifelong, mutually beneficial association.

"The Walters played a formative role in Herman Maril's life," Vikan says. "This exhibit demonstrates the role that a historic museum can have in shaping even an artist who works outside those traditions."

The Walters owns one massive Maril painting - Near Chama No. 2, a 6-foot depiction of a New Mexico landscape that the artist painted in 1970. For nine years, Vikan passed the oil painting every time he entered or left his office. Before long, he developed a strong attachment to it.

"Look at that painting long enough, and eventually those soft fields of color start to influence how you feel about the world," Vikan says.

"It's such a gentle piece, such a quiet and calm piece, and it was created during a decade that in other ways was so ugly. The 1970s was a brutalist decade, but Herman was not a brutalist painter."

Maril was born in 1908 into an Orthodox Jewish family that lved in Park Heights. The boy, the youngest of six children, was expected to study engineering.

"The family lived a rigid religious life, and was very poor," says the artist's son, David Maril.

"But one day when my father was still in high school, his class toured the Walters before it opened its doors to the public," Maril said. The elder Maril apparently was mesmerized by the so-called "Italian primitives," a group of painters from the 13th to the 15th centuries. One - the painter and architect known as Giotto - became a particular favorite.

"Many of these are portraits of saints on gold backgrounds, and they almost have an abstract feel," Johnston says.